How To Plan an Inclusive Office Party

 Three employees laugh as they celebrate at their office party

DEIB Diversity & Inclusion Employee Experience

Your company holiday party is an opportunity to show employees that you appreciate them and to strengthen your culture— but only if all employees feel included in the celebration.

Planning an inclusive holiday party can be trickier than it might seem. For starters, not all employees celebrate the same holidays. Some might not even celebrate the holiday season at all. A holiday party that emphasizes or highlights a particular holiday or set of holidays will inevitably alienate some portion of your workforce.

That doesn’t mean you should pass on holding a holiday party, though.

Put the focus on your people

To create a successful holiday party, shift the party’s focus away from the holidays themselves (which may be divisive or exclusionary) and onto something that all employees can identify with.

Tony Bond, EVP, chief innovation officer at Great Place To Work®, suggests making the party a celebration of all the things your employees have accomplished together.

“Rather than celebrating something that may have a religious connotation or something specific to certain groups, celebrate each other — the gift of working together,” Bond says. “If you’re going to have an end-of-year event, do something that honors the accomplishments of your team and its company culture.”

Your party can also foster a shared sense of belonging by focusing on what the new year will bring. Julian Lute, strategic advisor at Great Place To Work, encourages companies to host a holiday party that focuses on new beginnings and ending the year strong.

“People are going to celebrate their own thing when they want to this holiday season,” Lute says. “If you’re planning a party, be holiday neutral. Your company doesn't have to be the bearer of Christmas.”

Hosting an inclusive holiday party during the holiday season requires some thoughtfulness and clear intentions.

7 best practices for inclusive holiday celebrations in the workplace

Before hosting a holiday party, it’s important to take stock of how your employees might feel about getting together.

The COVID-19 pandemic irrevocably altered how some people feel about public spaces and crowds. Some employees might not feel psychologically or physically safe about going to a party — they might worry about getting sick or passing on an illness to a loved one, or the thought of getting together after so long might cause them to feel social anxiety.

As leaders, we need to be mindful of these feelings before planning and hosting an event. The following best practices can help you create a holiday party where everyone feels included.

1. Survey employee preferences and interests

The fastest way to plan a celebration that everyone can enjoy is by asking employees what type of celebration they would like to see. The greater care you take to ensure everyone’s voice is heard during the planning stage of your holiday party, the more inclusive the celebration can be.

Sending out a survey to employees to ask them about what makes a great party to them is a good start. But creating a celebration that surprises and delights your employees goes beyond offering gluten-free chips and vegan nutcheese — you also need to account for and include cultural customs, religious preferences, and employees' personal responsibilities like caregiving. The survey may also be a sentiment tool on how employees feel about a party at all.

2. Partner with your Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are voluntary, employee-led groups that have the goal of creating a diverse, inclusive workplace at their organization. They serve a vital role in ensuring employees, especially historically marginalized employees, have their voices heard.

Kim Clark, a diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging (DEIB) communications speaker and consultant, encourages party planners to work with ERGs throughout the year to make sure people feel represented at parties.

“Diverse perspectives are needed to design work celebrations,” Clark says. “[Most businesses] design for the majority and assume, if they are thought of at all, everyone else will everyone will just figure it out. Much like the Curb Cut Effect, design for the marginalized and you’ll still get the majority to benefit.”

3. Location, location, location

Thinking intentionally and inclusively about party décor, atmosphere and theme can go a long way toward making diversity and inclusion during the holidays a priority.

If the party is in a bar or club environment, with lights and big crowds, it might be overwhelming for some employees, Clark says. To make it an even more inclusive office holiday party, offer headphones and earplugs at the main entrance.

Avoid strobe lights because those can be painful for people with epilepsy or sensitivity to light. Provide small spaces and small tables for people to talk and mingle, away from the crowd.

4. Remember remote employees

How do you maintain an inclusive hybrid and remote culture during holiday parties (and just regular company events)? Make sure you have a sustainable budget, taking into account whatever economic challenges your company faces, Clark says.

“From a company-sponsored perspective, an equitable and cost-effective approach is to put the budget into an online experience (catered to time zones) where all employees can attend.

"Do breakout rooms and co-create the experience with ERGs. This is also more inclusive of folks with disabilities and more protective of identities that are more often subjects of microaggressions and aggressions in a party atmosphere.

"If your company prioritizes an in-person event, have regional in-person events where remote employees are included and travel is covered, Clark says.

“Figure out a system to provide the travel money or expense coverage upfront for flights and hotels, instead of assuming all employees have the money to pay and wait a month for expenses to be paid back.”

5. Set expectations (especially if alcohol will be served)

Before the party starts, communicate with employees about what kind of behavior will or will not be tolerated. Set expectations. Let employees know that you won’t tolerate any type of sexual harassment or lewd behavior.

Don’t center the event on alcohol with respect to those in recovery and who have their reasons for not drinking. Ensure it’s not the main attraction and instead it’s about connection and relationship building in a safe atmosphere 

It’s all well and good to say “don’t get drunk” but human nature being what it is, if alcohol is going to be served, think about setting up a group ride-share app code to help peple get home safely, or a group rate at a local hotel.

6. Celebrate workplace culture

Holidays are all about celebrating culture, but now might be the best time to celebrate your workplace culture, especially if you won an employer of choice award. Many companies celebrate their employees upon earning Great Place To Work Certification™ which builds camaraderie and pride in the workplace.

Certified company ALKU used the company culture award as an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of 10 star employees. Their people enjoyed a private acoustic concert, cooking class, and games, all via Zoom.

7. Offer a wall of remembrance

It’s common for people to feel somber, stressed, or anxious during the holidays, Clark says. It can be an especially difficult time for people if they are grieving.

“You could offer a space at the party where you encourage employees to bring a picture of their loved one and tell their story and what kind of legacy this person had on their life,” Clark says. “Before and after the party, you can send out an email that reminds your employees about the counseling and wellness benefits your company offers.

"It’s valuable and meaningful to acknowledge the variety of emotions employees are feeling at the end of the year."

What can I do instead of a holiday work party?

If celebrating holidays is too emotionally fraught, is not in your budget this year or doesn’t make sense for your culture, you could swap the celebration for something totally different:

1. Put a spotlight on employee recognition

At Hilton, Team Member Appreciation Week (TMAW) is something employees look forward to each year. This year’s festivities included a variety of fun events and activities — a puppy therapy day at corporate headquarters, a “Thrive Day” where employees could learn more about the benefits and programs Hilton offers and a dance competition that celebrated teams and cultures around the world.  

Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company shows recognition through its annual President's Quality Award (PQA), honoring high-achieving teams that have demonstrated dedication to delivering exceptional results.

Every year, the winning teams are celebrated in a company-wide ceremony where they are congratulated by the company’s CEO and their respective business leaders, and have the opportunity to talk more in-depth about their achievements.

2. Give the gift of time off

One great — and nearly free — way to reward your people is by giving them time. You can give employees a long lunch, put a new company holiday on the calendar, or give them an extra PTO day to use at their own discretion. Or why not pay your people to take time off do something cool such as taking a vacation, volunteering, or for people to use with their loved ones?

Many people value experiences more than things. And if your employees are like me, after two years of mindlessly online shopping, they don’t need more stuff. So avoid the holiday party altogether and give the gift of time.

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Claire Hastwell